American Diaries: Exploring the Exotic Side of Mexico

Having crossed the North American continent in late 2015, the #GLAadventure now heads further south – and, as the names of places get harder to pronounce, the locations get ever more exotic…

My nine year-old daughter and I often play an interactive globe game that shouts out names of obscure countries at you, leaving you to pinpoint them on a miniaturised orb that mimics our planet. The most fun ensues when exotic names have to be scouted, such as Guatemala or Nicaragua – in this case, on a strip of land that snakes its way south from the USA to South America. Who knew it was exactly this landmass that I’d be covering on the #GLAadventure.

The North American leg was complete in early November, following an exciting journey from New York to San Francisco over a couple of weeks. To refresh your memory, we’re driving these two made-in-India machines around the world – having already completed all of Europe, some parts of Africa and North America. After covering over 5,000 kilometres in the US, it was now time to head further South – specifically, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The cars had been trucked to Tucson, Arizona, where the team picked them up and drove across the border to Mexico. I met them in Chihuahua City, the capital of Chihuahua State, a little over 500 kilometres south of the US-Mexico border.

It’s Time for Some Mexican Adventures!

When you think of Mexico, the first things that come to mind are sombreros, mariachi bands, tequila, and tacos! Needless to say, there’s a lot more to Mexican culture than these clichés – something that we had hoped to uncover during our drive through the entire length of this beautiful country.

Great OverLand Adventure is all set to undertake some new adventures.

For me, it all started with a spectacular sunrise at the Chihuahua dam. The tourism authorities met us before the crack of dawn (literally) and escorted us to the dam to get the perfect view of the city. And what a start it was to this leg of the #GLAadventure – where we found the people exceedingly friendly and willing to go out of their way to help, but the red tape insurmountable in some parts (as you’ll read later on).

From Chihuahua, we headed 450 kilometres south to the abandoned mining town of Ojuela – which, replete with a famous suspension bridge, looked like it was straight out of the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The terrain is stark and rugged, and the views absolutely spectacular.

Watching the sunset from Puente de Ojuela (puente means bridge), capped off a pretty surreal first day – not least because of the beautiful landscape, but also because I got a bit of a shock the first time I saw our security detail.

The tourism departments of Chihuahua and Chiapas states provided us security through some parts of our journey – essentially to ensure that our rather conspicuous machines didn’t attract any untoward attention. Personally, I have to say that I never felt the need for any extra security – especially since every few kilometres we would come across the Federal Police on patrol with armed officers harnessed to the back of their massive V8-powered American pick-ups. In fact, between the Federales, the State Police, and a few army patrols that we came across on the highway, it certainly appears as though Mexico has among the most well equipped armed forces in the world – well, ground forces anyway! It was a little disconcerting all the same the first time I saw our very own pick-up with plain clothes State Police officers – about four of them – all packing serious heat!

The weapon of choice appears to be automatic assault rifles. Every 30 kilometres or so, we would swap one detail for another, but I have to say that whatever little time we spent with these folks – Federal or State Police – the language barrier aside, they came across as being the friendliest police force in the world. Perhaps also the fastest – you see, we had some trouble keeping up with their V8-powered machines on occasion.

Our security detail in Chihuahua State in Mexico. We plan not to mess with them!

The following day we headed further south to San Luis Potosi, which had an incredibly quaint and historic town centre with small parks and narrow cobblestone streets. Our objective was to head to the centre of town and shoot the cars in front of the beautiful Teatro de la Paz and Museo Nacional de la Mascara – i.e. the theatre, which is one of the four main theatres in Mexico, and the National Mask Museum. A local police officer was kind enough to help us navigate through the many curious looking pedestrians as we manoeuvred the cars onto the sidewalk and from there into the main square.

The National Mask Museum has a permanent exhibit of masks from across the world, which highlights the importance of this art form across cultures and throughout the ages. We even found a section dedicated to Indian masks, which included a Ganesh, Surya (the Sun God), and a Kathakali mask. What are the odds of coming across this lot in Mexico?

Even more interesting was a visit to a Lucha Libre wrestling gym next. This is a form of professional wrestling that’s very popular in Mexico. The wrestlers all wear masks, and take on an individual persona bestowed on them by the mask.

And while that may sound a little far-fetched, when I spoke with one of the wrestlers (who had given us a demonstration) he appeared very sincere in his belief that many of the moves he had shown us – such as somersaulting off the top rope, both into and out of the ring – are only possible when he’s in character and protected by his mask. And, sure, there’s an element of choreography in the show they put on, but what can’t be denied is the athleticism required to perform in the ring – this was further demonstrated by the young kids who spent hours in our presence relentlessly training to perfect their craft.

The next day, we drove 400 kilometres further south to Mexico City, and we came across something that we hadn’t encountered thus far on this trip – traffic, the trademark of all big cities all over the world! If nothing else, the #GLAadventure has certainly proved this to be true. We had just one night in Mexico City, and we intended to make the most of it. For the evening, we headed to Guadalajara de Noche in Plaza Garibaldi – the musical epicentre of Mexico City, and a tourist hotspot. Finally, we were able to indulge all the clichés that we brought with us to Mexico – Mariachi brands, sombreros, and tacos, all in one go. I have to say, though, that the band was pretty good.

And I also have to admit that I felt a little left out. You see, most of the other tourists were from other Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America and they sang along with the band with great gusto while we were left to simply tap our feet in recognition of their musical talent. We even saw a cockfight and a man who was pretty handy with a lasso – so pretty much the entire medieval Mexican experience.

The following day, a 900-kilometre drive lay ahead of us. Our destination was a picturesque city in a small valley – San Cristobal de las Casas. Another beautiful and quaint city, after San Luis Potosi, and this one had the added advantage of being surrounded by mountains on all sides. We were delayed by a puncture en route, and also indulged in a luxury on the #GLAadventure – lunch! It was a great meal at the Mexican equivalent of a roadside dhaba. And while the meal was satisfying, it meant that we only made it to our hotel in San Cristobal by midnight. The next day we had an early start too, since we had another 400 kilometres to cover – all in the hills – and a border crossing to contend with as well. But we couldn’t leave San Cristobal without first trying some of its famous coffee, which is exported all over the world. So we headed to a coffee museum in the heart of town, which looked more like a coffee house somewhere in Cochin.

The shots of espresso from different blends were exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, even chewing on the coffee beans whole was pretty effective in spurring us into action. On our departure, we were each handed a small bag of chocolate covered coffee beans – which is just what we needed to keep us going for the rest of our journey that day.

As we made our way to the Mexico-Guatemala border by about lunch, we had to say goodbye to our Mexican police escort. Our Guatemalan escort was waiting on the other side of a metal gate in a crowded market that constitutes the border. At each border crossing, we had to first get the cars stamped out, then the equipment, and, lastly, ourselves. Of course, we had to follow the same procedure on the other side of the border each time as well – in reverse of course, stamping in the gear, the cars, and ourselves via customs and immigration.

When you think of Mexico, the first things that come to mind are sombreros, mariachi bands, tequila, and tacos! Needless to say, there’s a lot more to Mexican culture than these clichés. - Dhruv Behl
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